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Making International Ed’s Case

When I heard Judge Allison D. Burroughs announce last Tuesday that the two sides in the lawsuit over the new international-student policy had come to an agreement — and that agreement was full capitulation by the Trump administration — I was in shock.

Now that I’ve had time to digest it all, I have two big takeaways, one encouraging, the other troubling.

Let’s take the negative first: Although the policy on remote learning was repealed, its impact can’t be fully undone. International students, and their families, won’t soon forget that the U.S. government gave them a cruel choice:abruptly uproot and travel home in the midst of a pandemic or return to campus, no matter the health risks. As I wrote in the Chronicle, the policy is the latest in a series of measures under the Trump administration that have been unfriendly to international students, reinforcing the impression that they are unwelcome here.

Indeed, rather than exuberance, many students I’ve spoken with viewed the rollback with skepticism, wondering when the next shoe would drop. Relief was tempered by wariness.

“I want to be excited,” one student, an engineering major from India, told me, “but I don’t dare to be.” Like so many international students I talk to these days, he asked me not to use his name, fearful that it could in some way jeopardize his student-visa status.

The policy could contribute to the erosion of America’s standing with students worldwide. But as a more immediate matter, the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to revert to earlier student-visa guidance, and a subsequent FAQ it issued, created new confusionmost critically around the issue of new international students. Some interpreted the guidelines to mean that new students are not covered by the more-flexible policy and must abide by longstanding rules, which limit international students to just one online class a semester. Others suggested they might not be granted visas at all. Government officials did little to clear up the matter, offering conflicting advice.

But enough with the bad. Here’s the good: The administration’s reversal on the policy was absolutely a victory for higher education — and colleges didn’t do it on their own. A broad coalition had higher ed’s — and international students’ — back: state attorneys general, Democratic and Republican members of Congress, organized labor, domestic student groups.

There are two sources of support that strike me as particularly important. One is the business community,including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some of the country’s biggest tech firms, such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. In their brief, they argued that international students are their once and future customers, a vital source of talent, and fuel for university-business collaboration. Education, they pointed out, is fifth among all American service exports. In short, they made the business case for international students.

The other is cities and counties, several dozen of whom filed an amicus brief. They warned that forcing international students back onto campus could create an additional public-health risk. For example, Los Angeles has had to place limits on coronavirus testing amid a surge in cases, and thousands of returning students could further strain capacity. But central to the local governments’ argument was how critical international students are to their communities — and to their bottom line. They pump $3 billion into New York City’s economy. In Pittsburgh, one job is created for every two international students. The loss of these students would have a “direct and deep impact,” the governments said.

Many of you reading this newsletter likely believe that international exchange is good, in and of itself. But these outside supporters also made an important case. Higher ed’s allies spoke up to say that international students are good for companies, for communities. That they are good for America.

Meanwhile, there are two pieces of good visa news:

  • The State Department said it would prioritize student-visa applicantsas it restarted visa processing worldwide.
  • And the government announced that students would be exempt from an entry ban to the U.S. on travelers from Europe and Britain.

Are you an international student trying to figure out your fall plans? At a college working to ensure that you are welcoming to students from overseas this fall? I want to hear about your experience. Email me at

Trump Cancels China Fulbright

Buried in a presidential order on Hong Kong is consequential international-education news: the cancellation of the Fulbright program, the U.S. government’s premier academic exchange program, for Hong Kong and for mainland China. The proclamation directs the State Department to “take steps to terminate” Fulbright for future participants. Because of the coronavirus, the program is currently suspended for all American participants, and a timeline for ending China exchanges isn’t immediately clear.

Fulbright sends relatively few students and scholars to China and Hong Kong — fewer than 200 a year by the last count — but the decision to end the program was met with dismay. Exchange programs are a valuable tool for cross-cultural understanding, Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued on Twitter — and that’s critical whether China is a friend or foe.

The Fulbright provision was part of an order ending special status for Hong Kong following a new national-security law imposed by Chinese government. But there could be more to come in the increasingly poisonous stand-off between Beijing and Washington. The New York Times reportsthat the Trump administration is considering a ban on travel to the U.S. by members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families and revoking the visas of those already here. Because party membership is seen as a path to better career prospects and social mobility, many ordinary citizens join — meaning that Chinese students and scholars seeking to study or conduct research in the U.S. would likely be caught up in a possible ban.

Study Finds Chinese-Student Backlash

Discrimination against Chinese students at American colleges could make them more supportive of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule.

That’s the finding of a new paper, which examined the impact of xenophobic, anti-Chinese comments on 300 Chinese first-year students at more than 60 colleges. Hearing racist comments angered them and made them less likely to believe that political reform was desirable for China. This response was more pronounced among students who didn’t harbor nationalistic attitudes.

“Strikingly,” the authors write, “we find that encountering xenophobic discrimination is more likely to increase support for autocracy among students who are more pre-disposed against the Chinese regime and less supportive nationalistic Chinese policies.”

Dealing with discrimination can cause a backlash, the researchers, at Stanford and China’s Sun Yat-Sen University, note. But their conclusions echo — worrisomely, for anyone who believes that international exchange should increase crosscultural understanding — an earlier Purdue survey of Chinese students, which found that for many, their perception of the U.S. grew more negative after studying here.

The authors say that their results are unlikely be explained by perceptions of how the U.S. and China handled the coronavirus outbreak. And comments critical of the Chinese government that did not include racist material did not lead to the same pro-Beijing shift in attitude.

The findings come amid an uptick of anti-Asian — and specifically, anti-Chinese — incidents fueled by covid. Americans’ views of China, meanwhile, hit new lows, with two-thirds telling Pew that they have a negative impression of China.

Related reading: This deep dive looks at how Sino-American relations are playing out on one campus.

Around the Globe

A federal court ordered the Trump administration to begin accepting new DACA applicants, following a Supreme Court ruling that blocked the president from ending the program for young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

A new U.S. House bill would mandate increased oversight of Confucius Institutes and withhold federal education funds to colleges that don’t comply with its requirements. A companion Senate bill was approved by unanimous consent last month.

Canada is making it easier for international students to study online from abroad and to qualify for a work permit after graduation.

Three Saudi universities will have autonomy under a new law.

Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and critic of the Chinese government, has been fired by Tsinghua University.

Lebanon’s prime minister is suing the cash-strapped American University of Beirut, where he used to be a professor and administrator, over a million-dollar exit compensation package he says he is due.

This story, about a Qatari sheikh’s “college” days at the University of Southern California, is really something.

A New Brunswick university mistakenly charged a Canadian student international tuition and asked her to prove her nationality. She thinks it’s because she has a Chinese name.

And finally…

Covid stranded many international students far from home. But with flights grounded, one homesick Greek student decided to take matters into his own hands — he cycled from the University of Aberdeen back home to Athens, a 48-day, 2,000-mile trip. The student, Kleon Papadimitriou, had to contend with bad weather, flat tires, and meager food rations; even when staying with friends, he camped out in backyards to avoid contagion. After fighting off doubts that he could make it, his parents cycled the final stretch with him:

“I think that if I had not already done it, and if someone were to tell me I could do it, I wouldn’t believe it. I had no idea that I had the patience and the willpower.”

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.